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Volume 10, No. 4 - May 2000
More in this Issue...


In 1539, Francis I decreed that the Kingdom of France would no longer administer justice in Latin: Judges were to use their pure native French instead. Later the same year, the king ordered Parisians, who were accustomed to flinging their ordure into the street, "to delay and retain any and all stagnant and sullied waters and urines inside the confines of your homes."

Was there any link between these two seemingly unconnected pronunciamentos? In 1978, the Marxist scholar Dominique Laporte intuited one in his serious but hilarious Histoire de la merde: Prologue, which credited "the peculiar organization of knowledge that was the Renaissance" to the "politics of shit." Laporte had already detailed the king's war against dialect in an earlier book. In Histoire de la merde, he concerned himself with the king's war against excreta. Both fights, he believed, were motivated by similar impulses: to police the individual and to extend the power of the state. In June, Laporte's intriguing blend of post-structuralism and scatology comes to America, courtesy of MIT Press, which is publishing History of Shit in an English translation by Nadia Benabid and Rodolphe el-Khoury.

According to Laporte, the public-health effects of the Hygiene Edict of 1539 were negligible. Two hundred years later, legend has it that Rousseau was still describing Paris as a ville de boue. On the political and economic plane, however, the royal edict "introduced a discourse whose operations took hold." After the Renaissance, the aggressive policing of ordure was justified in France by appeals to "cleanliness, order, and beauty." According to Freud, these are the three requirements of civilization. But just replace "civilization" with "the State," Laporte argues, and one begins to understand that "totalitarianism simply involves (indeed, is predicated on) the relegation of shit to the private realm."

Laporte's book offers memorable details about the disinfecting of cesspools, the use of "stercorary fluid" as a beauty product, and the aesthetic similarities between privies and tombs. But it also offers a sweeping historical thesis: In order for Renaissance France to transform itself into a capitalist society and a centralized nation-state, it had to encourage accumulation while simultaneously making accumulation shameful. The French had to be forced to "do their business" in private — le privé designates both the private realm and the water closet — so that the state could "clean up," purifying accumulated money through tax collection, much the way it carried (newly privatized) bodily waste away through its sewers.

In a Foucauldian move, Laporte argues that this new solicitude for the private realm did not limit the power of the state but expanded it. "Surely, the State is the Sewer," Laporte concludes. "We see proof of this in the fact that the more it institutionalizes Freud's triad, the more totalitarian it becomes."

Laporte died in 1984, at the age of thirty-five. This is a pity, not least because we'll never know what he would have thought about Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible, by Joseph A. Amato (California). Amato is a professor of intellectual and cultural history at Southwest State University and has written more than a dozen books, on topics as varied as contemporary French thought, the genesis of modern conscience, rural America, Jerusalem artichokes, and golf. Dust seems at first to be a straightforward, maybe even dry, treatise. It aspires, modestly enough, to remind us that dust was once "humanity's primary gauge of smallness." But it manages to be a stranger read than Laporte's intentionally bizarre history of shit.

Amato's scope is broad, ranging across everything from early-medieval attempts to grasp the unseen to the mid-twentieth-century invention of dust-repellent household surfaces. He can be oddly lyrical about dust, which is said to form "the ceaseless tides of the becoming and dissolution of things." But his book is, in fact, a jeremiad. It deplores the fall in prestige of "the microscopic stuff that flows around the islands of perceptible and palpable objects." For untold centuries, dust was esteemed as the barrier between the visible and the invisible. It was a reminder of "the infinite granularity of all things, [our] own selves and meanings included," writes Amato. (In the Book of Genesis, "For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" is no metaphor.) But now that order, sanitation, and cleanliness have been secured and science has discerned that dust is composed of discrete microscopic entities, dust qua dust "has been swept ... to the margins of contemporary consciousness."

Can dust receive its due? At times, Amato sounds like a 1960s Marvel Comics supervillain in exile, dreaming of glory and revenge. He laments that "dust as an element cannot claim the glory of light, the subtlety of air, the solidity of earth, or the vitality of water, even though it envelops galaxies, circles planets, and hides in the bedrooms of kings and queens." Elsewhere, however, Amato resembles an enlightened member of the hygiene police. He applauds a nineteenth-century Parisian law that required wastewater to go into sewers ("tout à l'égout!" replaced "tout à la rue!"). This is Laporte's turf, but Amato is not on Laporte's side. Amato likes dust, but he likes sanitation too. "The good depends more on pumps and pipes than on moral preaching," he writes. Although he laments the contemporary neglect of dust, Amato is just as sorry that we no longer regard as heroes the sanitarians, hygienists, and "legions of others who once fought dust with the full accolades of an era that took itself to be locked in a life-and-death struggle against it." Rarely has a historian been so frank about his love-hate relationship to his subject.

It's more common for commentators on detritus to take sides. After the Brooklyn Museum of Art displayed a controversial painting of the Virgin Mary that featured elephant dung, New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani stated, "I would ask people to step back and think about civilization. Civilization has been about trying to find the right place to put excrement." The historians of dust and shit couldn't have said it any better.

Joshua Glenn is the editor of Hermenaut: The Digest of Heady Philosophy

Lingua Franca turns 10

What were the best scholarly books of the 90s? E-mail us your three favorites and watch for the poll results in our 10th Anniversary issue this October.

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